October 24, 2011

State of Alabama
Press Release: Alabama Department of Commerce

HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology Unveils iCel App For Biology Education

The iCell 3.0 app is compatible with iPhones, Android- and Web-based devices and the iPad, version shown here. (Photo by HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology)

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama -- A product to help students better understand biology has evolved into one that can help them decide "what they want to be when they grow up."

The HudsonAlpha iCell 3.0 app is a new and improved version of the iCell, which has been available since April last year. It was originally created to help students "see" a cell in 3D, which is much more preferable than the way most of us have "seen" cells - flat pictures on flat pages in our biology books.

"It's really interesting to see how technology has changed in just a year and a half," said Dr. Adam Hott, the coordinator of educational outreach at HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology. "This changes the way biology is taught."

As technology evolved, Hott said he realized that "what we wanted and what we had, weren't what we needed."

"The iCell was built for the first-generation iPhone, and we decided to harness the power of the current iPhone," he said. "Once the iPad came out, we knew we were golden. We knew it was what we wanted."

The app is compatible with iPhones, iPads, Android- and Web-based devices, he said.
"We had a lot of requests for the Android market," Hott said. "It should be out (this week.)"

The availability of the app to practically everyone really gets him excited.
"We can get it into as many hands as possible, freely, with the most utility," he said. "This is a model of how we do digital education outreach.

"It's begun to take on a life of its own. The availability of it in multiple formats was exciting to teachers."

The plant cell is described in terminology at the intermediate level - middle school students. (Photo by HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology)

He said, over the last year, the old version of iCell has had more than 20,000 downloads from the App Store.

"As of Wednesday, there are 3,800 active users (of 3.0) in a week," he said. "It's pretty cool; this is folks who happened upon it."

Hott said the iCell works well with students learning biology in grades 5, 7 and 12.

"We went one step further with the 3.0 version and provided an interactive labeling mechanism that not only labels the parts of the cell, but also allows the user to switch the text description of the part on three different levels," he said. "Students in the fifth grade can look at it and take something from the shapes. Seventh-graders can learn the vocabulary, and the high school students can also learn (increased) vocabulary."

Like the original version, HudsonAlpha contracted with Digital Radiance, an associate company there, to help create 3.0, Hott said.

"I was a kind of slave driver to Digital Radiance," he said. "I said, 'That's great, but let's see how we can do this and do that' (to create the new version).

"They did it with amazing speed and professionalism."

Digital Radiance President Ron Phillips said there always was a need for more from everyone involved.

"We were pushing through as much data as the early iPhones could handle, but we always wanted more," he said. "It's so cool to watch people when they first zoom-in on the new high-resolution organelles: Their eyes get big and they smile.

"The light of understanding immediately goes on for them, and you think to yourself, 'This is absolutely how hands-on education should be. Let's do this for more topics."

Hott said it was this aspect of the iCell that could inspire the students to consider other careers instead of biology.

"I can see it not only with the sciences, but with engineering, computer sciences," he said. "You meet kids all the time who are aspiring to make their own iPad or iPhone apps.

"It's not a goal of iCell, but it's a wonderful outcome. That's what the spirit of HudsonAlpha is about."

Want an app?
The HudsonAlpha iCell 3.0 is available at Apple's iTunes store and the Android Marketplace
The web-based version is at www.hudsonalpha.org/education/digitaleducation/cell

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